MAKING SENSE of International Developments, 4.

Leiden University Kenan Cruz Çilli

New Political Year Marked With Presidential Race in Turkey

By Kenan Cruz Çilli

The beginning of the political year in Turkey has been marked by what is likely to be the overarching theme for the months to come: the presidential race and the upcoming elections. In 2019, the Turkish electorate will head to the polls three times for ordinary municipal elections, as well as for parliamentary and presidential ones. Much is still unclear about the strategies that Turkey’s political actors will pursue. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and its allies, as well as opposition parties, have begun the search for their own road-maps to the highest seat of power, the presidency.

In mid April 2017, the Turkish public voted in what was arguably the most consequential referendum in Turkey’s Republican history. The constitutional referendum, which was approved by a slim yet highly contested margin of 51%, will see sweeping changes to the executive system. In the light of this constitutional reform, Turkey will move away from its traditional parliamentary system to an executive presidency. Therefore, the upcoming elections are of particular significance, as they will truly mark the beginning of this new Presidential era. With the April referendum, it became clear that Turkey is firmly divided, not on economic or ethnic lines, but on the axis of support or opposition to the presidential system, which was strongly advocated for by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. For this reason, many have described the referendum as a national opinion poll on the approval rating of the president and his track. As this axis of political division in Turkey has grown clearer, the naysayers to the presidential system – referred to as the “No Bloc” – have already underlined that their individual 2019 campaigns will based on a pledge to return to the traditional parliamentary system, characteristic of Turkish democracy.

In order to run for president, one must be nominated by at least 20 members of parliament, or collect 100,000 signatures from the public. The No Bloc, consisting of an assortment of opposition parties, is expected to put forth various candidates for the position of the presidency. Several minor parties without parliamentary representation have already stated that they aim to collect the necessary amount of signatures to put forth candidates. It is likely that if no candidate is able to attain the necessary 50% + 1 vote necessary to win the presidency in the first round, the opposition will loosely converge around whichever opposition candidate makes it to the second round. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest political party opposed to the presidential system as well as Turkey’s main opposition party, has yet to present its candidate for president although it is speculated that its chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu will declare his candidacy. As an important political force in Turkish politics with representation in the Turkish Parliament, it is likely that the CHP candidate will make it to a hypothetical second round. The other most likely candidate to make it to a second round in opposition to incumbent president Erdoğan is the chairwoman of the recently established Good Party (İyi Party), former interior minister and veteran politician Meral Akşener, who has already announced her intentions to run. Akşener’s İyi Party was founded late last year as a Patriotic-Centrist movement that aims to appeal to the electorate on all sides of the political spectrum with the ultimate goal of restoring the parliamentary system. Finally, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which commands the majority of votes in the mainly Kurdish populated southeastern provinces, is also expected to reveal its candidate in the upcoming months.

On the axis of the incumbent president Erdoğan and his AK Party, it seems evident that the re-election campaign will be centred around an anti-terrorism platform strung tightly to messages of huge infrastructural achievements and investments, as well as continued economic growth, which are all key to the AK Party rhetoric. Erdoğan will focus on a message of national unity against internal and external threats alike, ranging from often imaginary or exaggerated claims about foreign countries wanting to impede Turkey’s growth and influence in the region, to legitimate internal threats from terrorist organisations. This message of national unity consistently translates into a reality of national polarisation – a strategy that has helped Erdoğan clench onto his base while maintaining a weaker and demographically smaller “other” against which he can juxtapose his “national” platform.

Experts argue that with the new electoral system Erdoğan made it more difficult for himself and for the AK Party to maintain power. Previously it was possible to establish single-party governments with as low as 35% of the vote, whereas now the bar has been set much higher, as attaining the highest executive powers will require at least 50% of support from the electorate.  Therefore, it is in the AK Party’s interest to procure support from a wider range of the Turkish public to ensure a swift victory in the first round. So far, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which was traditionally strongly opposed to the AK Party on various fronts, has expressed that it will support Erdoğan as their joint candidate for president. This alliance is already being referred to as the “Local and National Alliance”. It remains to be seen whether this alliance will be able to attract support from other political elements and civil society establishments.

As more parties begin to declare their candidates and the road to 2019 draws closer, all of Turkey’s political forces will play out their strategies in order to secure the maximum level of support. Various factors, such as no candidate being elected in the first round of the presidential elections or the chance of the vote being pulled ahead to an earlier date have the potential to impact the final result. The overall outcome will depend not only on whether opposition groups will be able to work in unison, but also on domestic and regional events, such as the situation in Syria, in which Turkey – a host of over 3 million Syrian refugees – is heavily involved through military incursions. The potential political alliances that will form, as well as the manner in which Turkey’s various contesting political entities will strategize in accordance to the new double presidential-parliamentary electoral system, will result in a new power balance that will lead Turkey up until 2024.